We have never valued ingenious articles

The generally excellent blog Jottings from the Granite Studio has an interesting post up on practical learning. The post is about the tendency of American universities to be too specialized, which I more or less agree with, but he uses a historical comparison I don’t much care for. Yes, it’s the Qianlong emperor’s reply to Lord Macartney, the most widely used quote from a pre-modern Chinese in Western writings on China, and perhaps the most often misused. Lord Macartney was sent to China in 1793 to negotiate the opening of more ports to British trade. The mission failed for any number of reasons, but it is constantly brought up as an example of the failure of the Chinese to comprehend the modern world. In particular Qianlong’s lack of interest in the clocks and mechanical devices the British presented them with is always presented as a repudiation of Science and Rationality in favor of Stasis and Tradition. Granite Studio

The Qianlong Emperor and his officials smirked at the pretty clocks the British kept presenting as gifts to the throne, dismissing them as mere toys, not realizing that the same precision instruments needed to make intricate clockworks are equally useful for making advanced artillery, rifles, and the instruments of war.

This is based on a couple of lines in the Qianlong emperor’s letter to George III, where he said.

The Celestial Empire, ruling all within the four seas, simply concentrates on carrying out the affairs of government properly, and does not value rare and precious things…[W]e have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your Country’s manufactures

I have a number of problems with this. I am not particularly interested in defending the honor of the Qianlong emperor, but the way this event is used, (and it is used a lot) is not very good history. For one thing, to expect anyone in 1793 to look at a mechanical clock and see the industrial revolution is wildly anachronistic. Clocks and clockwork go way back and nobody at the time even knew the industrial revolution was happening. Qianlong was in fact correct, there were few things that the British could sell in China at a profit (hence the opium trade.) Although Lord Macartney was proud of his nation’s manufactures and was in favor of an increase in Trade had you suggested to him that he represented the King of a nation of shopkeepers he probably would have had his servants give you a good thrashing. He was apparently much impressed with his hosts at the Qing court, and the whole mission is hard to fit into the modern stories we like to tell about the backward Chinese.

More importantly although the failure of the mission was later fit into narratives of Chinese backwardness and irrationality, that is not how the it was seen at the time. As Hevia p. 238 points out, this document was not even translated into English until 1896 and nobody at the time saw it as being of any importance. Quite a lot of interesting work has been done, by Hevia and others, on what the mission can tell us about the Qing, Empire, and such, but the old narrative still seems quite popular.


  1. Fair point. The line in question was a bit of tangential aside in a much longer post on a whole other topic, so I didn’t put as much thought into that particular sentence as I should have. I’m actually a big Hevia fan and should have perhaps chosen another example. Just to be clear, it had nothing to do with “backwardness” or “irrationality” (see my earlier post on this topic) but was rather part of a general discussion on humanities education. Thanks for catching it.

  2. Alan, it seems as if you were about to make a few more points but left them unsaid (I don’t have my copy of Hevia with me in Shanghai, but I believe I got these ideas from his books and articles):
    1) that historians cannot take official pronouncements at face value, they always have a spin factor and are directed to both internal court factional battles AND external audience.
    2) Therefore we must look at what Qianlong does as well as what he says. I believe Hevia says that Qianlong demonstrated quite an interest in “ingenious articles” but that he could not admit that in the situation he was in.
    3) Macartney brought obselete objects, not the most advanced ones.
    4) Qianlong and Macartney understood each other exactly–this was about power and “equality”. Qianlong was able to shut English demands down at this time because English industrial and sea power was still limited (see also R. Bin Wong and Kenneth Pomeranz) and only began to diverge at this point. Moreover, England only became the undisputed ruler of the seas in Europe after the 1805 sea battle with Napoleon.
    So, I completely agree with you, Alan, that this event is often used anachronistically to show the backwardness of Qianlong and China not being farsighted enough to realize what the industrial revolution could do for China.
    My apologies to Jeremiah that I cannot access your blog today, even my university VPN is being blocked by censors.

  3. Jeremiah,

    Yeah, I sort of figured as much, which is why I talked more about how it usually gets used than how you use it. I actually think there is a lot of Chinese stuff, from Confucius to Zhu Xi to Liang Qichao that speaks to this issue. Of course one difference is that many of the Chinese writers are making pronouncements from on high about what the right form of education was and were willing to impose it. We work in a consumer-based system where the most important thing is what students want. I would guess that a big chunk of them would be willing to accept a liberal education as long as it does not interfere with their career training or take too much time. Maybe our position is more like Zhu Xi, who was in part trying to trick students into becoming Junzi while the students were more interested in passing exams.


    Yes, I could have written a lot more, but it’s just a blog post. I agree with you and Hevia that this story is used anachronistically in lots of ways i.e. that the Great Divergence was not really happening yet. I’m not sure I agree that “Qianlong could not admit the position he was in.” Yes, he did admire Western clocks and such, but he did not see them as harbingers of an industrial revolution that he had to respond to at once (as you point out), since a.) they were not harbingers of an industrial revolution. IR is a pretty complex thing. and b) there is no way anyone without a time machine would have thought that. A comparison I like to use is what if the next Chinese ambassador to come to Washington were to bring a troop of acrobats unlike anything the U.S. has ever seen? Would we suspect that these acrobats and their training were the keys to the emerging flexibility/entertainment economy of the 2100s and start a crash course in re-making American society? Probably not. Bush would compliment them, hand out some White House tchtockies and send them home, which would be the rational thing to do even if it turned out to be wrong.

  4. I have always taken this encounter as a sign of Chinese strength, not “backwardness.” Yes, of course, no one could see the industrial revolution – as Industrial Revolution – as it was unfolding at the time, but Qianlong could likely sense the power and prosperity of his empire in 1793. Hadn’t the Qing pretty much taken over Xinjiang by then? And weren’t tax receipts doing quite well? The backwardness narrative comes only much later, when certain strategic Chinese weaknesses had been discovered and exploited by Britain, et al. And the thing that really propels decline is the Taiping, not the Tai-pans….

  5. Sam: Right, witness the change in discourse on China in the west in accelerating during the nineteenth century in Gregory Blue’s contribution to “China and Historical Capitalism” Blue and Tim Brook (CambridgeUP, 1999), and the changes in European discourse documented by Michael Adas. Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

    Alan: Yes, and a great blog to help keep my comps reading in play while I get into the nitty-gritty of my own research.

  6. Joanna Waley-Cohen’s 1993 article “China and Western Technology in the Late Eighteenth Century,” in the American Historical Review 98(5) is a classic on this point that the Qianlong emperor was speaking publicly to a domestic and foreign audience. If he admitted the need of foreign technology, he would be demonstrating weakness. He had however shown much interest in foreign weaponry and cartography throughout his long reign, and according to Waley-Cohen, this information was widely available in Europe.

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